Although New York was the scene of the largest demonstration protesting a political convention in United States history on August 29, most civil libertarians saw convention week not as a triumph for dissent, but as another indication of the erosion of the right to protest in the city.
While Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had promised respect for the First Amendment, and the right to protest peacefully, serious charges have been raised by protesters, civil liberties attorneys, public officials, and at least one judge that the city overstepped its legal authority in arresting and detaining more than 1800 (some of whom turned out to be bystanders and working journalists).
The City Council plans a hearing on the arrests on September 15 at 10 AM in the Government Operations Committee.
OMINOUS SIGNS BEFORE THE CONVENTION
In an address at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on August 17, just prior to the Republican National Convention, Mayor Bloomberg referred to the First Amendment as a privilege rather than a right, and added, "...if we start to abuse our privileges, then we lose them, and nobody wants that."
Bloomberg's focus was on projecting an image of a city in control, in hopes among other things of convincing the Olympics to come to New York in 2012. The original security budget of $25 million for convention week mushroomed to $70 million, the mayor said, with $50 million of that to be paid by the federal government.
But his comment turning rights into privileges further disturbed those who had criticized his refusal to allow the use of the Great Lawn in Central Park for a rally after the United for Peace and Justice march on August 29th. The group argued that it is the only large, public space in Manhattan appropriate for such a mass gathering. The city offered the West Side Highway instead. The protest organizers agreed at first, then said no; only the park would do. The city, especially the Parks Department and the Central Park Conservancy, argued that the Great Lawn had been rehabilitated at substantial cost and that protesters would damage it. A last minute court action seeking a Great Lawn permit was denied. The upshot was that there was no rally at all -- no chance to articulate why there was such a huge protest -- and the Great Lawn will probably be lost for some time to come as a gathering place for rallies.
Editorialists from the New York Times and Post to the Toronto Globe and Mail and USA Today expressed shock and dismay that so great a public space was being eliminated as a venue for First Amendment expression.
And they weren't the only ones. Bob Zuckerman of Brooklyn was so incensed that the protesters were forced into Union Square Park, "a thirtieth of the size," that he says he wants to run for City Council and do something about the restrictions on legal protest. Doug Muzzio, a political analyst and professor at the Baruch School of Public Affairs, said, "You have an increasing loss of public space. City Hall Park, for instance, doesn't allow for the free flow of people. The refusal of protest in Central Park signals the loss of _expression of voice. Bloomberg is not as bad as his predecessor. Rudy didn't like the First Amendment. Bloomberg just doesn't understand it."
Veterans of protesting in New York such as Ann Northrop of ACT UP, the AIDS activist group, and the ad hoc Gays Against Bush that formed just for the convention, cast a jaundiced eye on the police response to the week's protests. "It's the same old thing," she said. "We go out, the cops arrest some of us unnecessarily, beat us up in jail, and hold us for too long for no good reason. The police feel the need to control everything with forces way out of proportion to what's needed and I find that extremely depressing--and I'm depressed about the lack of rational conversation about this."
Northrop left the big march on Sunday for a few hours to lead a small gay contingent to Bryant Park on Sunday to protest against Mayor Mike Bloomberg's recent vetoes of gay bills as he was playing host to a "Big Tent" event for the gay Log Cabin Republicans. While what happened to her did not make much news and was not nearly as dramatic as some of the larger unpermitted street marches that sprang up during the week--and occasionally turned violent--it is illustrative of what has happened to the right to protest in New York City.
At first, Northrop's group of ten demonstrators was allowed to stand on the sidewalk at the West 40th Street entrance to the park, holding signs and passing out fliers to attendees. Then a polite police officer told them they would have to move thirty yards away from the entrance, where they could no longer engage the politicians going to the reception nor hand them leaflets. "We're not moving," Northrop said, "it is a public sidewalk." Then ten burly cops looking like linebackers got out of a van to make the protesters move.
Another woman told me that she was nearby when police arrested the anarchists in the big march who had burned the dragon. When she saw one police officer being rough on one of the people being arrested, she started shouting at the cop to stop. That led to her arrest, $100,000 bail (later reduced to $10,000), felony charges.
"ZERO TOLERANCE FOR PEACEFUL PROTEST"
After the big Sunday march, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was more upbeat than many of the veteran protesters with whom I spoke, saying that her group was "pleased" that it "went off with few incidents" and at "the level of cooperation from the New York Police Department who largely cooperated to resolve the logistical problems that are inevitable at any demonstration." She did complain about the arrests of cyclists in the march and of "harassment of legal monitors."
Two days later, however, on Tuesday, August 31, Lieberman felt the situation had degenerated with the mass arrest of protesters at the World Trade Center, which she labeled "a clear example of a 'bait and switch operation' by the NYPD. They misled marchers into believing they would be allowed to march on the sidewalk, and then arrested them indiscriminately after they began to march. This example of zero tolerance for peaceful protest is unacceptable. Such action by the NYPD effectively stifles political debate at a time when people most want their voices heard."
By Thursday, United for Peace and Justice was out protesting again, this time against what they called the "appalling" conditions at Pier 57, a former bus garage being used as a detention center for arrestees during the convention. "Most people have to sleep on the filthy and possibly toxic floor," the group said in a statement. "Arrestees have gone for many hours without access to food, water, phones, or lawyers." Gotham Gazette blogger Jon Winkleman talked about his harrowing experience in detention for 44 hours.
Inside the convention hall, some ACT UP protesters got in using credentials that they legally obtained. When they rose from their seats to voice their dissent, they were quickly subdued, pummeled and hustled out of the hall by security personnel and the Secret Service, while convention delegates chanted "Four more years!" to drown them out.
Republicans may not have wanted dissenters at their convention, but it is hard to say what crime the protesters committed. Nevertheless, the Manhattan District Attorney's office initially asked for felony charges of inciting a riot, assault, and trespass. It eventually offered to reduce the charges to minor "violations" and some of the protesters were offered Adjournments in Contemplation of Dismissal (basically a promise to dismiss the charges in exchange for good behavior), but they refused the offer, and are prepared to go to trial to achieve full acquittal.
By contrast, I recall that, as a Democratic delegate in 1984, I joined some other Jesse Jackson delegates in heckling Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young for speaking against an affirmative action plank. Former Rep. Bella Abzug, who was sitting in front of me, gave us a fierce tongue lashing for attacking a civil rights leader - but the Secret Service didn't tackle us!
REMEMBERING IN NOVEMBER?
The debate over the tactics the city used to contain protest during convention week will continue long past the president's acceptance speech and the November election - maybe to next year's mayoral election. Some of these issues are headed for the courts, since many of the arrested demonstrators will challenge the charges against them, and some are facing felony charges for arrests in incidents that involved injuries to police officers; more to the point, there likely will be a rash of civil suits charging the city with illegal detention.
It was in the courts that Mayor Rudy Giuliani had his sails trimmed several times he tried to limit protest, especially in front of and around City Hall. The only other counterweight to a mayor and police department determined to limit the right to protest is a City Council willing to write new laws that would rein in the executive and police. But while City Council members plan oversight hearings and hold numerous press conferences condemning police excesses, they have not passed their own "Right to Protest Bill" that would give some teeth to the right to protest in New York.
Not having such protection did make a difference. Exiting the massive march at 34th Street, Caroline Perez of Brooklyn said, "I know a lot of people who didn't come because they were scared-of police, chaos, or because they were immigrants. It says a lot."
Meanwhile, a large group of the protesters went to Central Park's Great Lawn anyway after the march, without incident (but also without a rally). One of these was Roger Donley of Houston, Texas. "When Bush was governor of Texas, people were told they couldn't protest outside the governor's mansion any more," he recalled. "If we don't have the freedom to express ourselves here in New York, we don't have it anywhere in the country."
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.